all turned around

HS of Graphic Communication Arts in crisis, staff members say

Staff members at the High School of Graphic Communication Arts say Room 310, where musical instruments, books, and other discarded materials are piled high, is a symbol for deep disorganization at the school this year.

Manhattan’s long-struggling High School of Graphic Communication Arts was supposed to turn a corner this year. But instead, students and staff throughout the school say a recent string of poor leadership decisions is threatening the school’s ultimate fate.

The toilet plungers that students were told to wield as hall passes last month — until the Department of Education ended the practice — are a distressing symbol of much larger problems at the school, they say.

A month into the school year, longstanding programs are in disarray, materials and personnel are languishing unused, and many students have had such inconsistent schedules that their teachers say they have learned far less than they should have by now.

“They are all so off-track right now that the first projects we have, I can’t really truly grade them as I normally would,” one teacher said about students. “I’m going to have to try to make up the knowledge somehow, but I don’t know how yet. They should be much further along than they are now.”

GothamSchools spoke with nearly a dozen newly hired and veteran staff members under the condition of anonymity, as well as other people close to the school. The staffers span the school’s grade levels, program offerings, and organizational hierarchy.

All said that the ultimate responsibility for the problems should fall on Principal Brendan Lyons, who took over at the school last year and was the department’s pick to lead it through “turnaround.” The aggressive overhaul process for 24 schools was halted this summer after an arbitrator ruled the city’s plans violated its contract with the teachers union.

Under Lyons’s leadership, the staffers said, school administrators have neglected to claim thousands of dollars in state aid for career and technical education; cut the school’s music program and given away many of its instruments; placed students in classes outside of their majors; converted an empty classroom into a dump for unwanted instructional materials; and rewritten students’ schedules so many times that some teachers have not been able to assign any projects or grade them.

“There are a lot of programming issues with my kids — basic things that should have happened but didn’t happen,” said one staff member whom Lyons asked to teach at the school this year.

“We continue to provide support to Brendan Lyons and High School of Graphic Communication Arts,” said Marge Feinberg, a department spokeswoman. “We are looking into the concerns and taking them seriously.”

Lyons declined to comment for this article.

Lyons became principal in 2011 after four years as an assistant principal at a small school in the Bronx and a stint in the department’s central technology division. Initially, many teachers said they saw in the young administrator a chance to work together to set the long-struggling school on a stronger path.

But once the department empowered Lyons to lead the turnaround effort, which included requiring teachers to reapply for their jobs, his leadership style took a more heavy-handed turn, according multiple people familiar with the school.

“A lot of principals did it in a dignified way,” a source familiar with the school said about the rehiring process. “Others didn’t — some did it in a horrific way.”

Lyons fell into the latter camp, the source said. “There was no compassion. That will never be repaired and it continues to this day.”

The arbitrator’s ruling rolled back changes made at the 24 schools that were supposed to undergo turnaround, so any teacher who wanted to return to Graphics could, even if Lyons had already cut him or her loose. Since then, Lyons’s team has frozen veteran administrators out of staff meetings and reassigned their duties to newer assistant principals, according to a new hire. Some of the veterans are still making six-figure salaries, but they are allowed to do little more than serve as hall monitors and physical education and safety supervisors.

That leaves newer staff members struggling to execute the tasks needed to make the school run effectively, the new hire said. “I’m already working 50 to 60 hours a week, and I don’t feel like I’m able to give the kids what they deserve,” the staffer said.

The biggest problems have centered on students’ programs. Some students were placed into courses they had already taken, while others were assigned to courses they never intended to take. Most students in the law and journalism programs, for example, were re-assigned to photography and visual arts courses this year, several students and staff members said.

Department spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said in a statement that “the students taking journalism and law will continue to do so,” but multiple students and staff told GothamSchools that there are currently no classes in those programs.

“We are not offering any of our kids law or journalism classes, and the kids … are not happy about it,” a staff member said. “It’s really sad because they came to the school with the expectation they would graduate with a focus on law and journalism, and now they will graduate with only half their programs.”

“They took law away. I came here for law. I wanted to do it,” said junior Justin Carter. “Now I’m doing visual arts, but I’m not a draw-er — that’s not me.”

Graphics’s career and technical education certifications could also be in jeopardy, sources said, because the school is receiving less state funding for CTE supplies than it has in past years after neglecting to apply this summer for a pot of state funds for that purpose. Plus, many certified CTE teachers left the school in June during the turnaround turmoil, because Lyons’s plan for the replacement school included changes to some programs, staffers said.

Still, with the staff turnover and the reduction of several programs came confusion and disorder. As we reported in September, many students arrived at Graphics for the new year with schedules for classes they did not request, in subjects they already passed or never planned to study — including one calculus class with so many students it filled three classrooms.

A plastic stool, an American flag and a pile of cardboard boxes join cascading stacks of textbooks in Room 310, a dumping ground for unused supplies at Graphics.

At several points throughout the first week of school, the auditorium hummed with the voices of close to 100 students with missing schedules, sources said. Many waited there for hours while staff members worked overtime to write new schedules. And on at least two days, sources said, administrators discharged hundreds of students by lunchtime because they didn’t have any afternoon classes scheduled, even though department officials said this would be a safety violation.

“Letting students leave before their day is over is irresponsible and shows a lack of caring or planning,” an administrator said. “Anytime we allow students to step out unescorted, we are encouraging them to cut class. This is unacceptable in a school with severe attendance issues.”

A month later, most students say their scheduling problems have been resolved, but the long-term effects linger in the form of missed assignments, extra homework, and frustrated teachers.

Evelis Cespedes, a junior, said teachers have assigned hours of make-up work and told her to expect a progress report on the first month of classes, but no preliminary grades. Students will receive final course grades in January, she said.

“It benefits us because we can make up the work we missed, but others will want to slack off until December,” she said.

A handful of teachers said the scheduling snafus have made it much harder to teach their students new material. They said this is because students’ schedules have been changing so frequently that they couldn’t count on a student who showed up to class on a Monday to be there again the following week.

“It’s impossible. You can’t give them grades or even get to know their names,” said one teacher. “I can’t blame them for getting bitter and angry.”

Another teacher said she typically assigns students a project in the first month of school that takes multiple days to complete but couldn’t do so this year.

“I have a lot of newcomers, so I based their grades on work from projects they did during previous classes,” she said, adding, “Scheduling has always been something of a problem, but never to this degree.”

In one class on a recent morning, another teacher asked the two dozen students to raise their hands if their schedules had changed two or more times this year. Half raised their hands. Some said they had received their most recent new schedule less than a week ago.

“And have any of you passed the Regents [exam for this class] already?” the teacher asked. One hand stayed in the air.

“Then you don’t belong here,” the teacher said, frowning. “This is supposed to be a make-up class.”

Teachers said students who don’t know where they’re supposed to be during the day are a common sight in the Graphics hallways. But several staff members said the most bracing visual of the school’s disorganization could be found in room 310, just off the auditorium.

That room used to house a robust music program with a piano, a drum set, and a host of other musical instruments, sheet music stands and chairs, they said. But this year it became a densely packed dumping ground for hundreds of textbooks, course materials, and other materials — including an askance stepstool, an American flag, and a television. Administrators instructed teachers to toss materials into the room that were left behind by departing teachers after they received their classroom assignments in August, staff members said.

“I’d like to call it a book room, but it’s not a book room. It’s a disaster,” one staffer said last week.

Some staff members said the school still has much potential to improve. But they are on edge as they await the latest high school progress report card release this month, and with it the city’s latest list of high schools it could close. One staffer said he initially believed Lyons was putting the school on a path to success but has lost confidence in the wake of the recent turmoil.

“I liked him,” when he arrived in 2011, the staffer said. “He was young, good with technology. He really sold me on his plan. And then he bamboozled me.”

new use

Committee picks Denver Language School to use building vacated by shuttered elementary

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Teacher Yu-Hsin Lien helps her third-grade students with classwork at the Denver Language School.

A charter middle school that immerses students in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese would occupy the northeast Denver building of an elementary school shuttered for low performance if the school board follows a committee recommendation made public Friday.

Denver Language School serves more than 700 students from across the city in kindergarten through eighth grade, although the recommendation is only for the upper grades. The school was one of seven that applied to use the building previously occupied by Gilpin Montessori elementary school in the Five Points neighborhood.

With real estate for schools scarce in Denver, the recommendation represents a win for the Denver Language School and a nod to some of the district’s priorities, including rewarding highly rated schools and collaborating with charters.

A committee of community members and Denver Public Schools employees tasked with reviewing potential occupants is recommending placing the charter’s fourth through eighth grades there next year while the school’s current building in east Denver is being renovated. After that, the recommendation is for the fifth through eighth grades to be housed at Gilpin.

In a letter to the community (read it below), the committee cited Denver Language School’s “high academic performance” and “track record of strong enrollment” among the reasons they chose it. The school has for the past two years been rated “green,” the district’s second-highest rating.

Because of the language immersion model, few new students enroll after kindergarten, which means the middle school wouldn’t draw many students away from neighborhood schools, the letter says, a concern voiced by some community members.

Denver Language School would pay the district to use the building. In a gentrifying city where real estate prices have been steadily increasing and the number of school buildings is limited, securing an affordable location is one of the biggest hurdles charters face.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg received the recommendation earlier this week. He is expected on Dec. 18 to make his recommendation to the school board, which is set to vote Dec. 21.

The school board voted last year to close Gilpin Montessori despite community opposition. This year, the building housed several programs serving students with special needs while the district decided on a long term occupant. The district’s criteria for that occupant were that it be a currently operating or previously approved secondary school with 600 students or fewer.

Denver Language School opened in 2010. Last year, it served about 300 students in grades five through eight. The letter says the school expects to enroll 365 students in those grades in future years, which means it would not fill the entire 600-student-capacity Gilpin building.

“In the future, we will revisit options for using the rest of the building,” the letter says.

The committee also noted the diversity of Denver Language School’s students as a positive. Last year, about 48 percent of students were children of color and 19 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty. Both percentages are below district averages.

The committee included four community members and five Denver Public Schools employees. They met privately five times over the course of two and a half weeks to come up with their recommendation. The district also hosted several forums to gather community feedback.

The committee members were:

  • Evelyn Barnes, parent of two students and aide to city council president Albus Brooks
  • John Hayden, president of the Curtis Park Neighbors neighborhood association
  • Katherine Murphy, parent of a former Gilpin student and a Curtis Park resident
  • Maggie Miller, member of the city’s Slot Home Task Force and a Five Points resident
  • Joe Amundsen, DPS’s associate director of school design and intensive support
  • Liz Mendez, DPS’s director of operations support services
  • Maya Lagana, DPS’s senior director of portfolio management
  • Sara Baris, DPS’s senior manager of planning and analysis
  • Shontel Lewis, DPS’s manager of public affairs

The other schools that applied included one district-run alternative high school, Compassion Road Academy, and five other charter schools: The Boys School, Colorado High School Charter GES, Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, 5280 High School and The CUBE. The last two schools have been approved by the district but are not yet open.

Read a letter the district sent to the Gilpin community below.

Indiana graduation pathways

Parents and educators worry about how new graduation rules will affect students with disabilities

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

In the wake of a wildly unpopular decision to change Indiana’s high school graduation rules, state officials must grapple with how to actually implement the plan — and students with disabilities could face more challenges following those rules than their peers.

Called graduation pathways, the goal was to ensure students are ready for life after high school, but the recommendations are complex. The system seems to overlap with existing Indiana diploma requirements and also requires additional criteria such as exams, completing advanced courses, or gaining credit for internships.

But there are no guidelines around, for example, what kinds of internships or community service programs would count for graduation, what kinds of supports and accommodations would be in place for students with disabilities or how the pathways would function alongside a student’s needs for special services and therapies.

The potential for these challenges was not lost on the dozens of parents and educators who tried to convince state officials last week to rethink the plan. Most of the people who commented publicly and many who sent emails to the state education department mentioned concerns about students with special needs being able to meet the new demands.

Stacey Brewer, a principal in Yorktown, talked about her own child, a 6-year-old with autism, when she addressed the Indiana State Board of Education.

“There is a very real chance that my child with autism will never be able to accomplish” parts of the graduation pathways plan that go beyond what’s required by the state’s general diploma, Brewer said. The state is “not weighing out the disastrous impact” the plan would have on students.

As she finished her passionate testimony, she walked back to her seat to energetic applause from the packed auditorium. Many with similar stories and sentiments spoke after her.

J.T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents said before Indiana can create graduation pathways, it needs to figure out what’s happening with its diplomas — a related issue that has vexed parents and educators ever since the federal government announced it would no longer count Indiana’s general diploma in the graduation rate the state reports. The move could exclude about 12 percent of Hoosier high schoolers from being considered graduates.

Indiana has four diplomas: The standard Core 40 diploma, a general diploma with fewer requirements, and two honors diplomas, one for academics and another for career and technical education. Most students in the state earn a Core 40.

“Don’t we need to fix the diploma statute to better serve all Indiana students before we embark on a new, untested direction for our graduates?” Coopman said.

Not all of the feedback was negative. Mary Roberson, a superintendent in Perry County, said she supported the graduation pathways plan overall, and that her district was already having students with disabilities pursue internships, where they’ve been successful.

In a newsletter sent out last week, Pam Wright, director of special education for the Indiana Department of Education, said policymakers and educators need to remember that all students with disabilities are not the same and have different needs and abilities. Some might struggle to meet the pathways requirements, but others might not.

“It is my hope that as other debates occur during this legislative session, the one-size-fits-all disability myth continues to be debunked,” Wright said in the newsletter. “Yes, definitely, students with disabilities need to be considered in any public policy change, but the uniqueness of each student’s capabilities should not be lost in the debate.”

Only about 17 percent of students with disabilities don’t earn a high school diploma, and almost half earn the state’s standard Core 40 diploma or an honors diploma.

Conversations about pathways, both as they relate to special education and to a variety of other topics, are just getting started. The pathways committee said it would continue to meet to address whether Indiana should create a single statewide diploma and how graduation waivers work in the new system.

Indiana law allows for a graduation waiver if students fail to meet pathway requirements, but the waivers are controversial, and schools are sometimes hesitant to award them. Supporters say they give opportunities to students who might face specific challenges, but critics believe the waivers give students a free pass and don’t ensure they leave high school with adequate skills.

No additional committee meetings have been scheduled at this time.

Students with significant cognitive disabilities — generally about 1 percent of students across the state — wouldn’t be affected by the pathways plan. They typically don’t earn high school diplomas, instead they receive a certificate of completion, a credential that until recently showed employers or educators little else besides that a student physically attended school. (It has since been expanded and updated to include more course suggestions and academic structure.)

Last week wasn’t the first time special education advocates came out in full force to challenge state officials on policy that could be detrimental to students with disabilities. Several diploma-related topics have garnered considerable attention, such as when the state attempted to overhaul diplomas in 2015.

The next year, when lawmakers passed legislation to ensure all schools offered students a chance to earn any state diplomas, educators, parents and other community advocates were there testifying to lawmakers, too. And as recently as last year, when an early version of a bill would have killed the general diploma, the language was amended out after pressure from the special education community.

Often, these graduation policy changes are sparked by a call for students to meet higher standards demanded either by employers or higher education. But Kim Dodson, executive director for the Arc of Indiana, an organization that advocates for people with disabilities, said focusing on raising the academic bar distracts from the very real problems policies like the current graduation pathways plan could present to students with special needs.

“Most of the time, when students fall short of their expectations, it’s not because the bar wasn’t set high enough,” Dodson said. “It’s because they didn’t have the resources and accommodations they needed to be fully successful.”